The Clown Prince of Denmark

I have always found professional classical musicians an intriguing breed. Quite unlike pop stars and media icons, such musicians usually provide us rather narrow means to understand them. Let me be more clear: while even I know that things ended poorly between Rihanna and Chris Brown two years ago, I can’t tell you the first thing about Vladimir Horowitz’s love life. This is not to say that classical musicians are dull, uninteresting human beings. In fact, they are some of the most creative and spirited people I have ever known. I mean to say that I have come to connect with my favorite artists only through the context of their music.

For this reason, Danish pianist Victor Borge is, by all means, an oddball. You see, Mr. Borge was not simply a tickler of the ivories; no, he was a stand-up comedian (and a damn good one, too). His tricks were many: one moment he was tripping all over the piano, transforming Rachmaninoff into “Happy Birthday” the next. His was a musical comedy, an art that incorporated the best bits of both improvisational comedy and musical genius. Any typical Borge concert invariably began with a stand-up routine and developed into a hodgepodge of musical vignettes laced with comedy.

This Dane, in a manner of speaking, turned the tradition of Western art music on its head by making slapstick out of Beethoven. Borge’s craft was unlike anything the world had seen before, and soon after his emigration to the United States, his act rapidly grew into a sensational hit. He went on to headline his own show on NBC, collaborate with the world’s best orchestras and, just before his death, receive the Kennedy Center Honors.

His path to America, however, was neither planned nor comfortable. On Aug. 28, 1940, with a grand total of $20 in his pocket and no knowledge whatsoever of the English language, Borge (at that time known as Borge Rosenbaum) stepped onto American soil for the first time. Days before, he had managed to catch the last neutral ship to depart from Petsamo, Finland, before the Nazis commandeered it as a naval base. He had fled out of necessity: while he was giving concerts in Sweden, his native Denmark had succumbed to Hitler’s forces. Poor, alone and utterly out of place, Victor Borge thus began his new life in the United States; fortunately, he had a mean talent up his sleeve. The rest, as they say, is history.

More than 50 years after he came to our country, I had the rare opportunity to see Borge perform one of his last live shows in Dallas. But instead of watching with rapt attention and guffawing at every punch line, I slept soundly through the performance. Why my father did not slap me awake I will never fathom, and I am still kicking myself 13 years later. But that’s besides the point. Why am I bothering to introduce you to a man dead more than a decade? To be honest, it’s for your own good. Borge lived to be 91 for a reason: he laughed often. As the end of the semester descends upon us, believe me when I say that his humor is helping to keep me sane. On a more academic note, I’m writing about this man because he provides a novel, engaging glimpse into the often-inaccessible tradition of classical music – not through moving performances, but by splitting sides. He often said that “laughter is the shortest distance between two people.” How can you deny the veracity of that logic? I certainly can’t.

I dare not to attempt to transcribe Borge’s humor here, lest I seriously cheapen the effect. Fortunately, because we live in the age of technology, there’s a gold mine of Borge material on YouTube that’s calling your name. Even if your knowledge of music extends about as far as “Twinkle, Twinkle, Little Star,” Mr. Borge will find a way to make you laugh. I promise.

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